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Interview With Merry Neitlich and Tom Zakrajsek

Photograph of adult figure skater Merry NeitlichAmerican figure skating coach Tom Zakrajsek

For every skater that masters their first double toe-loop and layback spin, there are coaches, choreographers and whole teams of talented and caring professionals who ensure that each skater receives the BEST possible care and education on the ice that's out there. Merry Neitlich is not only a competitive figure skater herself but a long time educator and professional communicator. Her
programs through The Coach's Edge have helped offer a whole new level of depth to the on ice education experience. Through seminars and instruction, The Coach's Edge breaks down the theory of successful coaching and puts research about effective coaching methods and techniques right in coaches and skaters plans. Recently, Merry worked with renowned Olympic level skating coach Tom Zakrajsek (one of the U.S.' leading competitive skating coaches) in presenting The Coach's Edge I-SPEAK Your Language program. This joint interview with Merry and Tom well explains the importance of looking at the process of coaching through different eyes, recognizing the bearing of communication skills on a skater's success and the paramount importance of education in the sport:

Q: What can you share about what first drew you to the sport?

A from Merry: I was captivated by the sport when I was 5 years old. I was a figure skater in Long Island, New York until I was 14 years old and stopped skating when I went into high school. I always regretted quitting the sport and finally when I was 47 I started to skate again. I began competing the following year and have not stopped since. I take my skating very seriously. My amazing coaches
have helped to earn more than a dozen podium finishes at the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships.

Photograph of adult figure skater Merry Neitlich
Merry at age 9 skating in Carol Heiss Jenkins' dress

A from Tom: What first drew me to figure skating was the ability to "fly" when jumping. I felt so free when I was learning new jumps and moving around the ice. I felt like a superhero.
Merry competing at the 2012 U.S. Adult Nationals

Q: How important is "thinking outside the box" when it comes to looking at the kinds of training tools that will culminate in a skater's ultimate success and preparedness for competition?

A from Merry: Since every skater learns a bit differently and needs their own special competition focus many coaches develop their own unique way of thinking and preparing for each skater. In 2009, I was drawn to start The Coach’s Edge. With a masters degree in education and communication skills, I was trained in a learning theory model from the UCLA Graduate School Of Education called the Design For Effective Education. It offers sound training in various aspects of learning theory such as retention theory and motivation theory. Through a 2010 survey, I developed for the PSA we learned that many coaches never had formal training in how people learn. The content of the Coach’s Edge curriculum was designed to combine proven learning theory with coaches already strong coaching skills to perhaps add an edge in their repertoire.

A from Tom: It is very important to think outside the box since no two athletes are alike. I use a very refined periodized training template which I have developed over 23 years of coaching. This framework, which is grounded in sport science principles, must always be modified for each skater I am working with especially when I develop them over time from the grassroots level to the World level like I have with Rachael Flatt, Ryan Bradley, Jeremy Abbott and Alexe Gilles.

Q: The two day seminar that you presented to these skaters really worked on preparing skaters (and coaches in turn) mentally for an adverse situation and developing their communication skills. How important is the line of communication between skater and coach?

A from Tom: Communication is paramount to a successful competition for the skater since the "language of skating" varies from coach to coach and since all skaters learn in different ways. Perception is everything and once there is common ground between coach and athlete, then success will happen and happen year after year. Many skaters can have 1 good season with a coach but it
is rare for skaters to continually dominate. I think Rachael and I had 7 years consecutively that were full of high achievement and success and I am very proud of our coach/student relationship. The I-Speak revealed how similar we were in our communication styles both during training and under the stress of a competition.

A from Merry: When coaches and skaters start to understand that everyone relies primarily on one of four basic communication styles the lines of communication open up and effective communication can happen faster. I use the I-SPEAK Your Language model in my training with coaches, parents and athletes.

Q: What are three things that every coach should ALWAYS bear in mind when working with a student... and vice versa?

A from Merry: When coaches understand their primary communication style and that of their athletes it opens the door to increased and more effective learning with less frustration. Coaches learn that some of their skaters, for example, like a lot of detailed step-by-step verbal instructions while others prefer a more visual approach. With a solid base in understanding how each skater learns best and communicates most effectively, coaches can decrease the time it takes to learn new skills.

A from Tom: The three things from a coach's view point are: 1) What is the focus point for the session/lesson? 2) Where is the skater developmentally in the four year plan (we always create quadrennial plans for all of my athletes) and how are they functioning (are they on target?) within their given yearly plan? 3) What is important for them to learn for their next competition? I rarely teach a lesson without a long term plan in mind because I feel that teaching a skater soley based on what I see that day or what they feel like doing that day DOES NOT produce any long term (or satisfying) developmental result. The three things from a skaters viewpoint are: 1) Do I understand what my coach is asking me to do? 2) Is the process of learning fun? 3) Am I giving full effort to the task/lesson that I am taking?

Photograph of American figure skating coach Tom Zakrajsek
Tom on the ice

Q: What kinds of training techniques do you feel are not being utilized enough in the sport by coaches?

A from Tom: Periodization is key to developing sport skills for any athlete over time. I feel the most beneficial thing I did as a young coach was study sport/exercise science in a formal undergraduate and graduate program at the University level. This allowed me to understand the athlete as a whole human being (mental, physical, technical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual).

Q: What is the key to success, in your opinion?

A from Merry: To increase the probability of success in learning, refining and mastering skating skills, coaches hold many keys in which to communicate their knowledge. We know from solid educational research that if coaches set firm expectations for their skaters the athletes tend to skate up to meet those expectations. We also know that incorporating proven learning theory into their coaching arsenal can increase the rate and degree of new learning. We can also help our athletes internalize ways to take on more responsibility for their own training, practicing and successes.

A from Tom: The key to success is an intense burning desire channeled toward a specific goal. In order to be the best everyone on the "team" must give full effort everyday. This requires self-discipline and sacrifice. 

For more information about The Coach's Edge and I-SPEAK Your Language, PLEASE visit For more information about Tom Zakrajsek, be sure to visit

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":